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Ukrainian Hand Embroidery: A Rich Cultural Skill

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The Magic of Ukrainian Hand Embroidery

Getting to an embroidery class at Cate Hill Orchard  was fraught with challenges.  Floods had taken out dirt roads in rural Vermont, and it was necessary to find other roads to go around without a Wi-Fi signal or GPS.  

When I finally arrived at the orchard, the beauty of the women gathered and wildness of the farm and orchard calmed me.  As I began trying to hand embroider for the first time, I remembered trying to learn to knit and crochet.  Eventually I gave up because I just couldn’t do it.  

These limiting thoughts came up but I pushed past them and told myself what I made did not need to be perfect.  I did it!  My first attempt wasn’t perfect by any means but embroidery felt like something I could really learn.

What is rushnyk embroidery?

A rushnyk or rushnik is a Ukrainian or eastern Slavic decorative and ritual embroidery cloth.  Nowadays, you’ll see many rushnyk pillows just for decoration.  In the past they were meant as protective talismans in the home.  

How was rushnyk embroidery used in the past?  

In pandemics, rushnyks were placed on the edges of the village as protection, and people had to pass under them to remove sickness.  For any life passage like birth, death, or marriage, embroidered rushnyks were used.  Girls learned to make lots of them because they were needed over every window and doorway.  

Ukrainian mothers blessed newlyweds and greeted them with fluffy bread and salt on a rushnyk cloth at their weddings.  Couples hands were bound in rushnyks during marriage ceremonies.  

Symbolism of Rushnyks

Over the years, these traditions became repressed and old wisdom was lost.  Old stitches were lost when transferred to patterns.  The image of a virgin or goddess with her palms raised became the popular tree of life embroidery symbol.  

The process of embroidering is rich with symbolism.  When choosing embroidery floss colors, red represented life, blood, vitality, and protection.  This contrasts with the color black symbolizing death and sorrow.  Making a knot stops the flow of energy, so it’s best not to secure work with knots.  

Fabrics for Embroidery

Choosing the right fabric for hand embroidery is important because some will look better than others and will be easier or harder to stitch.  Avoid synthetic fabrics and go for natural fibers.   Linen, hemp, cotton, or linen/cotton blends are excellent.  

Did you know different fabrics have different healing frequencies?  Linen and wool vibrate at a high frequency of 5,000 hz while cotton vibrates at 80 hz.   If you wear wool and linen together they cancel each other out so it’s best to wear them separately.

As the group embroidered we learned a song, “Over and under.  My heart remembers the ways of old.  This body knows.”  It almost felt like we were sewing the melody into the fabric.  

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